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Britannia, the British national personification.
This article is about the personification of Great Britain. For the Roman province, see Roman Britain.

Britannia was originally the Latin name that the Roman Empire gave to the island of Great Britain, and has become a national personification of Britain.


Roman period

At the height of Roman Britain, the Empire included much of Britannia (first invaded by Julius Caesar in 55 BC), up to Hadrian's Wall, which is close to today's border between England and Scotland. To the Romans northern Britain was known as Caledonia. Half of what is now known as Scotland was occupied by the Romans by the end of the Roman reign, kept in place by the Picts to the north of The Antonine Wall for over 400 years. The island of Great Britain has never been completely conquered, even in Roman days. People living in the Roman province of Britannia were called Britanni. Ireland was a separate region, which was never conquered by the Romans; it was called Hibernia. The people of these islands have strong emotional ties to the identity of their ancient ancestors.

There was no Britannia in Celtic mythology, and the land of Britain was not personified by any early known Latin poet. The Emperor Claudius paid a visit while Britain was being pacified and was honoured with the agnomen Britannicus as if he were the conqueror, but Britannia remained a place, not a female personification of the land, until she appeared on coins issued under Hadrian, which introduced a female figure labelled BRITANNIA.

Typical of the Romans, Britannia was soon personified as a goddess. Early portraits of the goddess depict Britannia as a beautiful young woman, wearing the helmet of a Centurion, and wrapped in a white toga with her right breast exposed. She is usually shown seated on a rock, holding a spear, and with a spiked shield propped beside her. Sometimes she holds a standard and leans on the shield. On another range of coinage, she is seated on a globe above waves: Britain at the edge of the known world. Similar coin types were also issued under Antoninus Pius.

British revival

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Britannia with the British lion and Uncle Sam with the American Bald Eagle on a post-World War I poster

Britannia remained the Latin name for Great Britain, but after the fall of the Roman Empire it had lost most symbolic meaning until the rise of British influence and later, the British Empire, which at the height of its power ruled a quarter of the world's people and a fifth of the world's landmass.

As British power and influence rose in the 1700s, and after the unification of the Kingdoms of England (which included Wales) and Scotland in 1603 upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I and succession of her Scottish cousin, James VI of Scotland (or James I of England), Britannia became a more and more important symbol and a strong rallying point among Britons.

British power, which culminated on the supremacy of its navy, lended these attributes to the image of Britannia. By the time of Victorian Britain, Britannia had been renewed. Still depicted as a young woman with brown or golden hair, she kept her Corinthian helmet and her white robes, but now she held Poseidon's three-pronged trident and often stood in the ocean, representing British naval power. She also usually held or stood beside a Greek hoplon shield, which sported the British Union Jack: also at her feet was often the British Lion, the national animal of England. Another change was that she was no longer bare breasted, due to the prudishness of Victorian Britain.

In the Renaissance tradition, Britannia came to be viewed as the personification of Britain, in imagery that was developed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. When James I came to the throne, some elaborate pageants were staged. One pageant performed on the streets of London in 1605 was described in Anthony Munday's Triumphs of Reunited Britannia:

On a mount triangular, as the island of Britain itself is described to be, we seat in the supreme place, under the shape of a fair and beautiful nymph, Britannia herself...

Britannia first appeared on the farthing in 1672, followed by the halfpenny later the same year; the model used, then and later, was Charles II's mistress, the Duchess of Richmond. She then appeared on the penny coin between 1797 and 1970, and on the 50 pence coin since 1969. When the Bank of England was granted a charter in 1694, the directors decided within days that the device for their official seal should represent "Brittannia sitting on looking on a Bank of Mony" (sic) [1] (

Perhaps the best analogy is that Britannia is to the United Kingdom and the British Empire as Lady Liberty is to the United States of America. Like Lady Liberty, Britannia became a very potent and more common figure in times of war. Since the 1990s a new term, Cool Britannia, has been used to express today's modern Britain. The phrase refers to the fashionable London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester scenes, with a new generation of pop groups and style magazines, successful young fashion designers, and a surge of new restaurants and hotels. Cool Britannia represents today's Britain as a fashionable place to be.


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Britannia Gold Bullion coin, 1988

Today Britannia lives on in British symbols and British patriotism such as:

Other uses:

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